the fix is in

How the state plans to deal with the struggling Westminster Public Schools

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

District and state officials have come up with a plan to improve student performance at Westminster Public Schools that gives the district’s unique academic model a chance to take hold and avoids more drastic changes at the state’s disposal.

Officials negotiated the plan — which involves enlisting the help of two outside companies — while also preparing for a legal confrontation about how the state evaluates districts.

Attorneys for Westminster schools will go before the state Board of Education on Monday to again ask for a higher performance rating. If the appeal fails, Westminster officials will present the state Board of Education with the plan for improving student achievement and graduation rates at an accountability hearing in two weeks.

Westminster Public Schools officials argue the state is not consistent in how it evaluates districts with challenging student populations. They also contend the state isn’t making allowances to account for Westminster’s so-called “competency-based” learning model, which does away with grade levels and moves students instead based on when they show they’ve learned certain standards.

“Unique among Colorado’s school districts, WPS is being penalized for its particularly needy student population and constitutionally protected choice of the (Competency Based System),” the district’s appeal states. “The District deserves a real opportunity to implement this model under consistent expectations and in harmony with current state standards and assessments.”

After several years of low performance on annual state evaluations, the nearly 10,000-student district is the first metro area district in the state to face the possibility of losing state accreditation.

The plan that district and state officials may offer the state board would allow the district two more years to improve while it works with two companies to manage some parts of the district’s work.

The state could have chosen more drastic steps including turning management of schools over to a charter operator, recommending the district give schools more autonomy under innovation status, or forcing the district to merge with one that is higher performing.

“Charter or innovation at an individual school level may have a positive impact on student achievement and may be appropriate, however that approach alone would not be sufficient to address the needs of students across the district,” the state’s recommendation stated.

The documents from the state say that if “significant progress in student performance” isn’t shown in two years, state officials will reevaluate the recommendation.

Under the negotiated plan, AdvancEd, a consultant the Westminster district hired last year to review the district’s competency-based model, would help the district diagnose problems interfering with the proper rollout of the model and other achievement problems at each underperforming school.

After last year’s review, AdvancEd granted the district a five-year accreditation under their standards. The group also accredits Valor Christian High School, schools in the Cherry Creek School District and schools under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

The AdvancED work under the plan is expected to take between one and three years.

The second company, Denver-based Marzano Research, would partner with the district to train and better prepare teachers to use the competency-based model.

Marzano would also create a Marzano Academy in the district to open in the 2018-19 school year as a lab school that will be run based on Marzano’s research.

Westminster officials declined to comment on the plan at this point, but noted that the Marzano group has been involved with Westminster for some time with other work around the competency based model. They also noted that the AdvancED partnership is ongoing regardless of the direction from the state.

Some efforts to improve the district already are underway.

One example: Free, full-day preschool is being offered for four-year olds at seven locations in the district for the first time this school year. Westminster is also expanding internship and concurrent enrollment opportunities for students and is working to improve a new leadership pipeline program to train aspiring school leaders. The plan document from the district also mentions a program to mentor new teachers.

Although almost half of the district’s students are English learners, the plan from the district doesn’t address any specific changes to instruction for English development, although the district notes that “inconsistent quality, fidelity, intensity, and implementation,” of instructional strategies for English learners is a root cause of performance problems in the district.

CDE Accountability Pathway Recommendation Westminster Final 4 17 17 (Text)

on to the work

State Board signs off on Adams 14, Adams City High School improvement plans

PHOTO: Denver Post file photo
Music teacher, Kristin Lewis, works with her 5th grade students in 2011 at Monaco Elementary School in the Adams 14 district.

The Colorado State Board of Education on Thursday quickly and unanimously approved a revised improvement plan for the Adams 14 School District.

“I am hopeful and optimistic,” said board member Jane Goff, who represents the area that includes the Commerce City-based district. “I am very firm and forthright in my confidence that this is a good plan, that you have taken all the necessary steps to interact well in new and different ways with the community.”

Goff noted the role students have played in shaping the discussion.

Students from Adams City High School walked out of school earlier this year demanding to speak with the district administration, asking for a voice in their school’s future and pleading for stable leadership.

The district’s approved plan calls for an Arizona-based nonprofit group, Beyond Textbooks, to help improve teaching at three schools and make recommendations about possible management changes.

The final order for the 8,000-student district allows the state to take further action if the state’s 2018 performance reviews don’t show improvement.

The order also states that if Adams City High School earns a priority improvement or turnaround rating in 2018 — the two lowest ratings on the state’s evaluations — the commissioner “may assign the state review panel to critically evaluate the school’s performance, revisit its recommendations and report back to the state board.” The high school is under its own improvement plan because of poor performance, along with being part of the district’s plan.

The state board has given most other schools and districts on improvement plans until 2019 to show improvement, and set different ratings to trigger further action in the different orders they’ve approved.

Westminster Public Schools must earn a rating higher than the two lowest ones by 2019. Aurora Central High School must show improvement in the 2019 evaluations, but it will only face further action if it earns the lowest rating of turnaround.


Westminster’s plan to improve schools gets narrow board approval

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

A plan to improve the struggling Westminster Public Schools was narrowly approved Thursday by the State Board of Education.

The Democrat-controlled board voted along party lines to approve the plan, with the Democrats voting in favor and the Republicans voting against.

The 4-3 vote followed months of negotiations and appeals between the 10,000-student district and the state.

Westminster is the first metro-area district in Colorado to face state intervention after more than five years of low performance on state English and math tests. It is the only district in the state, and one of a few in the country, that has tried to roll out competency-based education district-wide. Instead of traditional grade levels, the district moves students through instruction when they prove they’ve learned a concept.

As part of the improvement plan, the district has hired consultant AdvancEd to help diagnose problems interfering with the rollout of its teaching model and other achievement problems at each of the district’s underperforming schools.

The district previously hired the company to review its school improvement efforts. AdvancEd granted the district a five-year accreditation under their standards. The group also accredits Valor Christian High School, schools in the Cherry Creek School District and schools under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

Under its plan, Westminster will also work with Denver-based Marzano Research to train and better prepare teachers to use the competency-based model. Marzano will open a new lab school in the district in the 2018-19 school year. Called Marzano Academy, it will be run based on the company’s research.

Last week members of the state board pushed back on Westminster’s plan, saying it lacked clarity and didn’t make clear the roles the two companies would play.

Even though the district added new details to its plan, some state board members still balked.

“Will this program work?” Republican Steve Durham asked. “I hope so. But I’m not sure it’s the kind of change that can ensure that.”

Earlier in the meeting Durham attempted to strip the district of its accreditation, a seal of approval from the state. But only one other board member, Republican Joyce Rankin, supported his motion.

State board members have increasingly voiced concern about how much authority external partners such as AdvancEd and Marzano should have in low-performing schools. A majority of plans have mirrored Westminster’s. Other options include closing schools or turning them over to charter operators.

Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson told the board’s Republican members that she rejected their premise that the district hasn’t been proactive in improving.

“We’re really pleased the board upheld Westminster’s plan to move forward,” Swanson said after the meeting. “We believe we’re doing great work. We believe we’ve had a great trajectory.”